The elevator door slid shut.
On his hip, Alicia Birch shifted. Dr. Jeffrey Geiger stepped back from the door and looked at her, smiling. She gazed back, blue eyes innocent and clear. He finished pulling her hot pink jacket over her small arm.
"Hey Alicia. It's just you and me now, huh?" He jiggled her into a more comfortable position on his hip. He felt almost happy.
It had been a hell of a thirty-six hours. A living nightmare. One that promised to join the others deep in his dreams.
Alan Birch had died.
Died. On his table.
And he couldn't save him.
Geiger willed the images from his mind. They could be mulled over later, when Alicia was asleep and the night was darkest. For now he had to get the two of them alive through today. And tomorrow. And all the rest of the tomorrows to come.
He felt strangely free.
"You won't be back." Aaron Shutt, his deepest, closest friend had said. Insisted, but with dark brown eyes pleading him not to go.
"I'll be back. In time, I will be back." Looking directly into Aaron's eyes, acknowledging the silent request but refusing it. In time, Aaron, he had thought.
Of course he'd return. He just had to stabilize things with Alicia first. Alan was dead. Geiger was the child's godfather. And Alan had wanted Alicia to stay with him should something happen. Which it did...Aaron knew this. Why was Aaron so insistent that Geiger wasn't going to return?
The elevator reached the ground floor of Chicago Hope Hospital. The door opened, discharging Geiger and Alicia. He resumed singing:
"Skiddle-a-rinkee-dinkee-dink, skiddle-a-rinkee-doo...I love you..."
Past the front reception desk, the clerks checking the patients in, and out...
"I'll love you in the morning and in the afternoon..."
Past the waiting room with its transitory inhabitants, some confused, scared, worried. But all hopeful...
"I'll love you in the evening underneath the moon..."
Now at the front entrance, of glass and marble. The blue-clad security guard nodded as Dr. Geiger, regal in black coat but with an incongruous teddy-bear blanket and bag draped on one shoulder and a nine-month-old girl on the other, sailed through the automatic doors and out into the setting sun...
"Skiddle-a-rinkee-dinkee-dink, skiddle-a-rinkee-doo, I love you!"
Several people turned to watch the two. Those who didn't know Dr. Jeffrey Geiger saw a forty-something year old man with a little baby, both totally engrossed in the other, a portrait of open gentleness. Those who did know him were shocked, wondering if the rumors they'd heard of him leaving indefinitely were true after all, or would they see him tomorrow tyrannizing the surgery department as usual.
Alicia began to fuss. Geiger checked his watch.
"Okay honey, okay. A few minutes and we'll be home and I'll get you something to eat."
They were now at his car, a sporty red Porsche with a baby seat installed on the passenger side. Thank God Camille had had the good sense to bring it--now he installed Alicia in the seat, fastening the belts securely, ensuring her safety before getting in himself. Seven years now, since Joey...and fatherhood was just like riding the proverbial bike. Sliding into the driver's seat he thought he really should buy a more family-type car. They drove homeward. Well, to his apartment. He'd never called it a home before.
He chatted to Alicia all the way, trying to soothe her fussiness. There was baby food in the diaper bag and Camille was bringing Alicia's things over to his apartment from Alan's house. Oh God--even thinking of his name in passing hurt. But he pushed it down. Later. Not now...
They arrived at his apartment building. Camille's little blue Corolla was parked in the loading zone. One little miracle. He pulled into the parking garage. Alicia was beyond fussing and now was at the "Feed me now or I'll deafen you!" stage. Out of the Porsche, he picked her up. "Okay pumpkin, not long now." Through the parkade, sailing through the doors and into the elevator to the top floor, the penthouse suite, Alicia screaming all the way. His key fumbled in the lock.
Camille opened the door. "Hi Jeffrey. I thought Alicia would be hungry. Here, let me take her." He handed the child over speechlessly. "Hi Alicia! Are you hungry? Of course you are! Well, I made dinner for you, okay?" The smell of warmed beef stew and carrots wafted through the apartment.
"Camille. You make anything for me?"
"You can fend for yourself." She walked Alicia over to her highchair, placed by the kitchen table far enough away so as not to be kicked over by little feet. Dinner for Alicia was already out. Camille sat down after sliding the baby in, popped a spoonful of carrot into Alicia's mouth.
"I brought over what I could fit in my car. I left the crib and Alicia's bedroom furniture at Alan's for now. She can sleep in her playpen tonight or until you can pick up the rest of it." A spoonful of beef. Carrot. Carrot. Beef.
When would Geiger not wince at the mention of Alan's name? He tossed his coat on the living room sofa, sat opposite Camille. Beef, carrot, beef. He studied Camille feeding the baby. She had wanted Alicia so badly. He felt uncomfortable about it now. Carrot. Beef.
"Yes, Alicia, it's good, isn't it? Jeffrey, you should do some groceries, you've got almost nothing here."
"That's what my cleaning lady's for."
"Well, I brought over Alicia's food and formula, she's got enough for a week or so." Carrot, beef. "Her toys and clothes are here too. You'll have to unpack everything. Mmmm, a few more spoonfuls, Alicia. And bananas for dessert!" Camille studiously avoided looking at Geiger.
"Camille...uh...you're welcome to come visit Alicia, you know. Any time. She'd love to see you." It was an olive branch, the best he could offer.
Alicia had finished the carrots and Camille spoon-fed her the rest of the beef. Camille looked at Geiger finally. Blue and brown eyes locked. She glanced away first.
"Maybe...I'd like that." She mashed up a banana. "You can feed her dessert. I have to go. I'll be late for my shift." She stood up.
"Camille..." Geiger reached out, touched her elbow. "I'm...I'm sorry. I..."
"Jeffrey, please. Spare me. I'm already jealous. You have Alicia. I know Alan wanted it." Geiger winced. "Take care of her. She deserves to be happy. And maybe you'll finally be happy too." She avoided his gaze lest he see her tears. "Good luck." She broke free and was gone. The front door shut softly.
Geiger turned to Alicia who had managed to smear banana over her face and auburn hair. He chuckled. "You silly goose. You gonna wear that banana?"
"Yah!" She stuck banana-gooped fingers into her mouth.
He fed her the remaining banana, chatting amiably. It really was the easiest thing ever. He'd forgotten the simple joy of it, feeding this little girl as he had fed Joey, being rewarded with a baby chortle or those big blue eyes staring at him so innocently.
And the routine returned. Dinner, bottle, check the diaper, change it. Camille had set up the playpen in the living room, bless her--he deposited Alicia in it while he unpacked the various bags and boxes, toys first to keep her occupied, checking clothes and diapers, putting away the cases of baby food and formula in the kitchen, a room he rarely used before...the penthouse suite was two bedrooms but a house was definitely in order now, a big back yard with a swing set, what he and Laurie and Joey had had...
Laurie. What to do with Laurie? She was married now, to that Red Sox wacko Gilbert Weeks in the laughing academy, and his heart was still broken...what to do? He was still Laurie's official guardian. Well, that could wait another day or two.
Seven-thirty rolled around and Alicia was nodding off. She'd had a bath earlier...he found a pair of green and white sleepers, undressed the sleepy girl, checked and changed the diaper again, and put the sleepers on her. He then sat down with her in a wooden rocking chair near the bay window overlooking the Chicago skyline and what night stars that could penetrate the lights and haze of the city. The rocker had been left over from Joey's short life, one of the few mementos he had kept. He rocked slowly in the chair, Alicia fast dropping asleep against him, lulled by his steady heartbeat. He'd loved this part of the evening with Joey...he waited until she was sound asleep, just watching the night sky and rocking. Then he laid her in bed in her playpen, covered her with a blanket, rummaged in the kitchen for something to eat, settling on a peanut butter sandwich and bananas. His whole life stretched in front of him.
What to do?
No one to check up on at the hospital.
No surgical notes to dictate.
A little girl who needed him, though maybe not as much as he needed her, asleep in a blue and pink playpen in the living room.
"I don't know if you even function outside this hospital..." Aaron again.
Truth was Dr. Jeffrey Geiger lived and breathed Chicago Hope, had done for so long that his apartment was almost foreign. He'd only had it to crash in after those 16-18 hour days. Or for those utterly meaningless one-night stands when he needed sexual release. He'd certainly never lived here. Now, he had to. But with someone to live for. Again. Finally. He finished the banana.
Nine o'clock. He settled back down in the rocker with a few cardiothoracic journals. Occasionally he glanced over at the playpen, heard her breathe evenly and lightly, a little sigh, a thumb in her mouth. She was innocence personified, living with a twisted, unhappy soul...
"The idea of an interim existence is unthinkable...I certainly don't know what kind of parent you'll be--"
"I'm going to be the father Alan had planned to be for Alicia...the father I hoped to be..." his voice had caught, "with Joey...and it's not going to happen. In. That. Room."
Jeffrey Geiger hated the night, doing nothing, with only his thoughts for company. Perhaps that was why he'd worked so hard to keep the demons from his door. Now there was one more ghost to add. Alan took his place.
"Not good enough. Not good enough..."
The words twisted awry on the page. He slammed the journal to the floor. Then he heard a whimper. Damn. Alicia...but she simply rolled over, not fully awake, and slipped back to sleep. Geiger exhaled, sighing. He couldn't read now. May as well go to bed...
Geiger shot awake, panting, soaked with sweat.
He hadn't had this nightmare for a long time.
But this one had a twist.
It was Alicia, he found, face down in the bathtub.
He climbed out of bed. 3:21 in the morning. The air was cool against his damp skin. Clad only in blue boxer shorts, his bare feet padded silently over the carpet from bedroom to bathroom, back to bedroom to grab the comforter from his bed, and then to living room. He held his breath listening for her tiny baby snores. He wanted to wake her up, cuddle her, take comfort from her warmth and trust because he felt so alone...but that was selfish. So he curled up on the floor beside the playpen, wrapped in the comforter, and fell asleep.
The days passed, a week, two. Every morning Geiger awakened beside the playpen wrapped in the eiderdown comforter from his bed. He hadn't yet screwed up the courage to pick up Alicia's furniture from Alan's house...Alicia thought it was wonderful. This man who woke up beside her every morning wasn't her daddy, but he had warm brown eyes and he played with her and he loved her. She knew her daddy wasn't coming back--this man had told her that daddy was with God now. But this man would not leave. And he was there to play with her when she woke up.
The days were leisurely. Geiger took Alicia to the waterfront, where he taught her to feed the pigeons. It was endearing to watch her, bright coppery hair glowing in the late autumn sun, stumble and giggle after those birds, throwing bread at them. Or playing hide-and-seek with her in the leaves, a peek-a-boo on hands and knees with her shrieking in delight. He surgically removed the hospital from his mind. Geiger found himself not missing it.
If he didn't check up at the hospital, then no one called to check up on them either. It might have been a lonely life. But Geiger was so enthralled with Alicia and involved in parenthood he didn't notice it at first. That legendary drive and focus that defined his surgical career transferred completely to her. It hadn't been like this, sadly, with Joey, much as Geiger had loved him...the intensity of his love astounded Geiger, but he revelled in it anyway. And Alicia blossomed, fast becoming a very bright, inquisitive little toddler. It was almost idyllic, except for the bone-chilling nightmares that led Geiger to sleep at Alicia's bedside. The pain lying in wait, lulled by the domesticity. And, soon, Alicia's own innocence.
Alicia's baby prattle included some words now. One of them, naturally enough, was "da-da".
Which she would say looking directly at Geiger.
He didn't know what to do with it. It was encroaching on Alan's territory...and Joey had died before learning to talk, so Geiger had never been "da-da" before. He didn't realize how much he liked to hear it. Or how much it hurt.
Then he heard the message left on his answering machine, coming back from the waterfront park with Alicia one early November day after rolling in the leaves. A lawyer representing Alan's estate. Would Dr. Geiger be so kind as to retrieve the rest of Alicia's belongings before the estate sale next day?
Jeffrey Geiger's heart sank. But it had to be done. He arranged for a moving van, and drove over to Alan's brownstone. The lawyer, neat and efficient, met Geiger with the key and let him in.
Most of the furniture was covered with plastic but a fine layer of dust had settled over everything. The house smelled distant. Biting his lip, Geiger crossed the hardwood living-room floor and strode into what had been Alicia's bedroom, the little girl on his hip.
The baby furniture had already been disassembled and packed in neat and impersonal cardboard cartons labelled crib, dresser, change table. The room was apple-green with a pastel rainbow trim on the ceiling, bright and cheerful. He could see the white muslin curtains billowing above the heat register...the furniture set up, Alicia asleep. And Alan Birch watching lovingly from the door.
Geiger inhaled sharply. Alan's last moments swam up, unchecked, flooding: Alan's heart refusing to beat again, despite Geiger's best efforts...Everyone watching from the observatory above the operating theatre, stunned...Aaron's eyes, hand clamped over his mouth...Geiger's mother at Aaron's right shoulder, hissing not good enough, not good enough...and the monitor flatlining. Geiger had collapsed in the OR, someone had caught him (he later learned it was Billy Kronk) and held him as he grieved then, for Alan, for his own glaring failure, for letting everyone down, again, when it mattered most...number one CT surgeon. Yeah, fucking right. What the fuck did that mean when you couldn't save a dear friend with such a simple procedure you often performed it in your sleep? He trusted you, goddammit! With his daughter, ultimately with his own life, and you failed him. YOU FAILED HIM. Alan had saved your career. And you ultimately could not return the favor by saving Alan's life...Geiger sobbed finally, head bowed, weeping into Alicia's fine auburn hair and the mid-autumn sunlight streaming through the window.
Alicia grew restless and started to squirm. Geiger set her down, then slid to the floor himself, propped against a carton. He raised his face to the window, heart sore, to the sun and the boughs of the birch tree just outside. For a fleeting moment, Geiger saw Alan. Alan, nodding forgiveness in those branches. Then the vision was gone, the branches only shadowed in the afternoon light. Had to be. The sun, playing tricks through his tears. He blinked. Just the sun, right? There were no ghosts...
He drew a sleeve across his face. Well. Geiger had Alan's daughter. The only way left to repay Alan now was to love and care for Alicia. It had to be enough...that was his atonement, wasn't it? "I couldn't save Alan. I will damn well save her..." The meaning behind his promise finally hit him. Not just a promise. His salvation lay in those words. But he had it backwards. He wasn't saving her--it was Alan, through Alicia, who was saving him.
He found strength. He wiped his face with his hand and rose off the floor. He moved the cartons out of the room. The lawyer had waited tactfully outside the bedroom, and was kind enough to keep an eye on Alicia while Geiger loaded the van. Once done, Geiger went back in to the empty brownstone to scoop up Alicia. Stopping by the bedroom one last time with Alicia in his arms, face pale and eyes swollen, he looked in. The sky was grey now, clouding over. And the room was just a room. Nothing more.
"Goodbye, Alan", he whispered. And left, not looking back.
More days passed. Despite facing Alan, the atmosphere in Geiger's apartment grew stifling and he had to escape. Despite Aaron's sage advice after his spring meltdown Geiger still hadn't sought help, not a counselor, not a psychiatrist. Aaron, sadly, was right in saying Geiger ran from, rather than faced, his problems, though Geiger would never admit it. And November, month of the dead, brought the biggest of the demons to bear: the seventh anniversary of Joey's death. Perhaps Alicia, and a change of scenery, might offset it somewhat. So, taking up an outstanding offer from a colleague in Canada to visit and give a guest lecture, he packed Alicia, himself and, unwittingly, his demons into his Porsche and drove off to Calgary, Alberta.
The trip itself was uneventful, if boring. The Canadian grasslands in November suited Geiger's essence although he didn't realize it: the vastness of land and sky, and the gray-gold dormancy of the prairie waiting for warmer days. Few vehicles traversed the highway in November, none so obvious as the Porsche. Towns were even fewer, and far between. Alicia, luckily, slept well in the car. With the music blaring, tires singing, and speeds upwards of eighty miles an hour, Geiger felt fine. Heading into the brisk prairie wind, he could tilt all the windmills. He hadn't felt this free since...well, forever.
They arrived in Calgary at night, the lights shimmering against the evening clouds from thirty miles before they got to the city. He found the downtown hotel easily enough; Calgary was a breeze to navigate. He unpacked Alicia and her playpen, putting her to bed, before crashing himself. He had driven to Calgary in under thirty hours with no sleep. The nightmare for once eluded him that night, and he slept well.
He had a day before giving his guest lecture at the Health Science Centre. What to do...a morning at the Calgary Zoo was in order, why not. Feeling adventurous, they even took the train from downtown. The great Dr. Jeffrey Geiger taking a train to anywhere was unheard of, but this was Calgary and no one cared. He hadn't felt so carefree in a long time. On a warm, chinook day and with Alicia in her stroller, he forgot being an adult for a while and just enjoyed Alicia's reactions to seeing so many new and different animals for the first time. Even the demons knew to stand at bay for now...
Running after a toddler took a great deal of energy, especially one as inquisitive and active as Alicia. Geiger had to sit down and tuck Alicia into the stroller just to catch his breath. They sat beside a young woman leaned over on a park bench, tying frayed laces on her hiking boots. She cut a strange and wistful figure in profile, head bowed in concentration; she didn't notice them until Alicia chortled. She glanced over, noting a tiny auburn-haired girl in a Disney stroller, only faintly aware of Geiger beside her.
She smiled at the child. "Hey kiddo." Alicia stared back, thumb in mouth. "Like the zoo?" She tucked a strand of brown curling hair under the green felt beret she wore, and pushed her glasses up onto the bridge of her nose.
"I think she does." Geiger grinned lopsidedly at the woman when she turned, startled, towards his voice.
"Oh. Good. This is a great place. Perfect for little kids." She flashed a shy smile at Geiger and just as suddenly looked away. A man with thinning dark curly hair, forty-something, proud and confident, but with a haunted face and an off-guard look behind the grin that shook her. She bent over again to inspect her laces.
Geiger was amused. This one was strange, all right. Brown hiking boots, thick black wool tights, a brown and pink-flowered dress under a charcoal caped coat, the green felt beret, black gloves. An eggplant-colored knapsack sat behind her feet. Her seeming diffidence was not something he usually liked or tolerated. But something about her appealed to him and he tried to be nice.
"Well, I'm not quite a little kid, but..."
There. Rewarded by a wry half-smile, showing slightly discolored teeth. "I like it here too. It's peaceful. One of my favorite places." She nodded slightly, then stood up and swung her knapsack expertly over her shoulder. "Well. Nice meeting you and your daughter. I have to go. Bye." She turned and left the bench before Geiger could say anything else.
Damn. He had spent entirely too much time alone with Alicia lately. He didn't know what to say to keep the woman there, losing the chance for an adult conversation, even if only about the weather...But she didn't get far. About ten paces away from the bench, movement from the rocks near the path caught her eye and she whirled to face a black squirrel hunched just off the grass. The woman froze then slowly bent on one knee, oblivious to the other pedestrians skirting around her, extending her gloved hand. Geiger distinctly heard her make high-pitched kissing noises and fast clicks. He watched in wonder from the bench as the squirrel approached her, skittish from the other passersby but otherwise unafraid.
"Look, Alicia!" he whispered in the baby's ear, close enough not to want to scare the animal off. "See that lady? She's talking to a squirrel!"
And the squirrel replied in kind and hopped almost to within reach of the gloved extended hand. The woman continued the high clicking noises, then nodded and rose just as gently as she had knelt. The squirrel stared at her for a minute then scampered off. She watched it slip away.
"That was beautiful. Do you always do that?" Geiger dragged the stroller with him and stood beside her.
"When I can. They think I'm one of them. Learned to talk to them when I went to school in Guelph. They came right up to you, thought they owned the place." She bit her glove absently. "Silly little things." She exhaled sharply. "I should be off." She turned to leave again.
"No...wait." Geiger tried not to sound too desperate. "Uh, listen, I normally don't pick up women like this, I mean, I could but I don't, it's just that, well, Alicia and I are new in town, we're just visiting really, don't know anyone, well, a colleague of mine works at the university medical center but I'm not scheduled to go there until tomorrow and..."
The woman raised her eyebrows. "You want someone to show you around town, maybe have dinner and some conversation, just so you don't go too crazy from loneliness in a foreign city, right?" She suddenly wasn't as diffident as she seemed.
"Yeah. Something like that. I mean, if you don't mind having a baby around, if you're not married or working for the cops to arrest me for solicitation..."
The woman laughed. "I don't think so. Working for the cops. Yeah, right. Do I look like a vice cop?" She softened. "Sure. As long as you don't plan to rape me or kill me or do something else equally heinous." She glanced away, shook her head and grinned. Then she looked directly into his eyes and extended her hand. "Cheryl Lucas, your Calgary tour guide."
Geiger took the offered hand, relieved. "Jeffrey Geiger, American tourist. This is Alicia."
"A Yank at that! My lucky day! Pleased to meet you. Hey Alicia," Cheryl said, bending down to meet Alicia in the stroller, "welcome to Calgary!" She tousled the girl's hair and stood back up. "Any particular places you want to see? Keep in mind I have no car. Poor student, you know, can't afford one."
"Nowhere in particular." He smiled genuinely at Cheryl. He liked her more and more. "You're the guide, I'm just the tourist."
"Well, not that I'm an expert on the city, I've lived here only two years myself, but I can fake my way around. Let's see...Heritage Park is closed today, you're four months too late for Stampede, November isn't exactly the greatest tourist season. Best bet is probably downtown, now you've been to the Zoo...the Glenbow Museum? Devonian Gardens? Yeah, they'd be nice, they take kids. You drive here?"
"We took your...C-train?"
"OK...hey, look, it's a nice day and we're not too far from downtown, want to walk back? There's a really nice path that runs right along the river. Only half an hour. Good exercise..." Cheryl seemed to perk up more, the wistfulness dissipating.
Geiger's energy was returning too, now with Alicia nodding off in the stroller. "All right, sure. Lead on then."
They wended their way to the pedestrian and bicycle path that followed the north banks of the Bow River. Not quite the Lake Michigan waterfront, but pretty nonetheless. Alicia slept, the occasional bump in the path not even fazing her. Geiger pushed the stroller, Cheryl walked easily beside him with her hands now deep in her pockets. They might have been an image of a happy family.
"It's such a gorgeous day! It's been so cold lately, a deep freeze, now we've got a chinook and I just love it." Cheryl spoke aimlessly, then spread her arms wide, inhaling deeply. Geiger finally realized why he liked her so much--she was a saner version of Laurie. The comparison arose unbidden, with a sharp twinge of pain.
He spoke too casually. "A chinook?
"Oh yes! When warm wet air blows from the Pacific, it releases its rain on the ocean side of the mountains so the wind is warm and dry on our side. Forty-degree changes in a single day! It's simply wonderful. I've been cooped up so long inside I decided just to take off today and enjoy it. Lucky for you, eh?" She grinned, then twirled around.
"Yeah...lucky for me", he replied weakly.
They came to a rail; Cheryl hopped up and carefully stepped along it, holding out her arms for balance. She tossed back her head and laughed. "Oh my God! I am just so giddy! Like being out of a straitjacket!"
Geiger stopped. His face darkened. Cheryl, glancing back at him, grew serious.
"Hey. What's up? Jeffrey?" She used his first name. She stepped off the rail, returned to his side. His head bowed.
"Nothing. It's nothing. Just leave it." His voice was tight. "We almost there?"
Cheryl grew concerned. "No, another good twenty minute walk. Jeffrey..." She touched his coat sleeve.
Geiger drew his arm away as if burned. "I'm all right. Nothing to be concerned about. You just...remind me of someone I used to know." He avoided her clear grey eyes, worried behind her dark-rimmed glasses.
Cheryl shrugged. "All right then." They continued in silence for a few minutes. A magpie chattered at them from a bare poplar beside the riverbank. Cheryl followed its call, turning in its direction, then back to Geiger and Alicia.
"Magpies are so playful, you know?...they'll torment the bejesus out of a cat or a dog, funny thing is that's how they learn who's a friend and who's a foe. Though it's a foolhardy way to find out, I guess that's the power of evolution. If you're stupid, you're lunch. Rather appealing in a ghoulish, blackbird pie sort of way..."
Geiger wasn't listening. Rather, he was listening, but he wasn't hearing the magpie, or Cheryl. He was hearing Laurie, Laurie before the madness, in those careful, fanciful words. He still avoided Cheryl's gaze.
Cheryl's voice grew quiet and thoughtful. "You know, Jeffrey, to everything there is a reason. I know, bad pun on a beautiful poem. But it's true. My squirrel, the magpie...we may not know why right away, we may never know why at all, but it exists. Whatever's bothering you, well...there's a purpose to that too. I know you don't want to tell me. OK then, I won't pry. But we search for meaning every day. Why bad things happen..." her voice trailed off. "I guess they mitigate the good stuff, make us appreciate the good stuff more. But some of us get more than our share of the bad..."
Cheryl had unwittingly exposed Geiger's dilemma. The world flashed white. He turned on her, seething.
"What...do...you...know...about...that?" he hissed, eyes burning. "How... how...dare...you...presume...anything?" He almost spat.
Well. The off-guard look had presented itself. But instead of fleeing from it, Cheryl met his anger with her own measured fury. Grey ice met hot flame.
"Look. I don't care who you are or what you've suffered. We all suffer, that's being human. The strength comes in rising above the despair and not allowing it to master us. I've had my misery, Jeffrey, more than I thought I could bear. But I bore it. I still bear it, every day it's with me but I bear it. Why won't you bear yours?"
Alicia whimpered. Jeffrey turned away and bent to check on the little girl, shaking.
"I bear mine," he whispered hotly, "every day, every minute, it's there and it never leaves. Never. Pushing, pushing, never takes a break, never lets up, see it in my dreams, taste it in my mouth, it's always there pushing, pushing, wants me to give in, I've tried to leave them behind..." He bowed his head. He normally lost control by now; it took superhuman effort to maintain his place. He had to think of Alicia.
Cheryl's eyes softened. She laid her hand on his shoulder. "Want to trade? Yours for mine? It's hard to live in your own head at times, maybe if we switch or share they'll give us a break."
Geiger raised his head, glaring at her steady gaze. The small part not devoted to rage noted that she was not conventionally pretty, but an inner light shone in her eyes that made her beautiful. Recognition. Understanding. A kindred spirit...he nodded acquiescence. Alicia settled down and he rose again, still fuming. Cheryl showed no fear. He was taller, stronger, he could reach out and snap her in his wrath, but this mere slip of a woman stood her ground. A match. What had she lived through to dare challenge him like this?
Cheryl refused to pick her way around him. In for a penny--"Who'll start?" Geiger shrugged, not wanting to say anything for fear of exploding and scaring Alicia.
"All right then, my baggage. I go to school here. My husband lives and works in another city. We're lucky to see each other once a month. Assuming neither of us has to work that evening or weekend we're together. Been doing this for six years. The only improvement is that we're in the same province now. Used to be halfway across the country, lucky to see each other twice a year. Want more?"
They had continued walking. They approached the Fourth Avenue bridge. Geiger remained silent. Not even close, he thought, remembering Laurie in her straitjacket. Seven years. And she left me for a wacko. Your husband's sane, at least. And he hasn't left you yet...he squeezed his eyes shut.
"You have a daughter."
And I had a son. He died, my wife drowned him. Seven years ago. Today...
"A beautiful little girl, she's your pride and joy, isn't she?" Cheryl's voice grew distant, and she stopped. Geiger stopped too. "A beautiful, beautiful baby. I had one, once. Three, in fact. Sad thing is they never lived to be born. Three miscarriages all in a row. My last one died, at ten weeks, I saw it on the ultrasound and I couldn't do a thing but watch its little heart slow and slow...then I took all those genetic tests they give you if you're three times unlucky and they told me, sorry, but you'll never be able to bear children. Chromosomal, they said. In the germline. My side."
Geiger stared at her. Her eyes glassed over. "I'm thirty-two. My oldest should have been six this month. I'd have one about Alicia's age and one on the way. If things were right. Adoption here is out of the question. By the time we finally get our act together and have a decent home and well-paying jobs we'll be too old to be considered suitable parents. At least another ten years. That's if they don't learn about my rather checkered medical history. Let's just say my husband was terrified of having to put me away for a while again after my last loss." She didn't intend to sound bitter, but it crept in. "Life's been a bitch, let me tell you." She then sighed. "There's other things I won't discuss. But Jeffrey, I lived through them. I had to learn to pull strength from them, actively learn, but I did it. And I still do it, always, and will for the rest of my days. Because I've come too far to want to go back."
They continued walking in silence. Her story...not the same. Not comparable. Except for it being equally painful. Her experience was something he could not fathom. But Cheryl's sadness resonated with his. He glimpsed in Cheryl the rage he still felt. Yet there was something else...she'd broken through the rage. And lived on the other side.
They crossed the bridge, landing near an open space that had been green in summer but was now lying again in wait for spring.
"Listen to me! I don't even know you and I'm telling you my life story!" Cheryl walked ahead slowly, arms outstretched, face to the southwest chinook wind. "Forget the tour of Calgary, you just got a tour of my psyche! Heh! Poor poor soul."
Geiger stopped, dumbstruck, gaping at Cheryl. That was the difference. There was...life beyond the rage. Not in it--beyond it. The revelation stunned him. He dropped to his knees.
Cheryl turned back toward him, saw him collapse and ran to his side. "Hey! Jeffrey! What's wrong?"
Geiger hunched over, rocking on his heels. Was it that simple?
Cheryl knelt beside Geiger, gripped his shoulders, tried to examine his face, terrified this near-stranger was suffering a heart attack. She pulled him up to look at him. "Jeffrey!"
He stared at this strange and wonderful woman. Cheryl Lucas. Dear light. Alicia was awake now and clamboring to get out of the stroller. Truth...he gripped Cheryl's elbows, pulled her up to stand with him. "I'm all right, Cheryl. I'm all right."
"I...I don't know, I...can't explain. Even to myself...but something, something marvelous, an answer that's eluded me for all these years, just suddenly...I can't explain. But it's like...like I've been carrying the world on my shoulders, you know, Atlas, and getting tired of it all, and now something's...I..." He stopped, shook his head. The look on his face was heart-wrenching. His eyes glistened. "Thank you," he whispered.
"You're welcome, Jeffrey," Cheryl answered simply.
"How long have you been away from the hospital?" Leah Geiger was incredulous. She set down her mug of coffee on the kitchen table in her home near St. Ignace on the northern Michigan peninsula.
"Since about mid-November." A shrug. Geiger cupped his mug in his hands, drawing warmth from it. "What's it to you?"
"Jeffrey. You come here out of the blue with a little girl in your arms, who's not even your own, tell me you've left Chicago Hope to care for her, you, who've literally *lived* there most of your adult life, and you ask what's it to me? What the hell are you doing?"
"Yeah yeah, it figures. Come to visit my favorite sister--"
"Your only sister."
"--Who I haven't seen for God knows how long and she starts tearing strips off my back not five minutes after she invites me in. Give me a break will ya? Does it matter whatever reason I left? Does it?"
Leah Geiger shook her head. "Only if you tell me. But please. Humor me. Let me in on your little madness. How long will it last this time?"
"As long as it has to."
"You came from Calgary?"
"Gave a lecture there. Was invited, took up on the offer."
"Chicago to Calgary in less than thirty hours, not bad eh? Well how about that. Picked up a Canadianism. 'Eh' after every sentence. Thank you Cheryl Lucas."
"Who's Cheryl Lucas?"
"My Calgary tour guide."
Alicia had found the saucepans in Leah's kitchen cupboard and was happily crashing them. Leah smiled; it had been too long since any child had done that in her home. Though this particular one was certainly a mystery, and her younger brother was not forthcoming.
"Hey Alicia, that's right. Trash Auntie Leah's house for me, okay?" Geiger's face turned wistful, an unaccustomed look for Leah. "Just like Joey, eh? Can't help but think what he'd be like, right now, at Alicia's age..." he trailed off, staring into the coffee cup.
Yes. Of course. "How did you spend Sunday? In Calgary?" She knew what Sunday was.
"Would you believe in a park? With Cheryl?"
"In a park."
"Well, the zoo first. Then we walked to the Devonian Gardens. Very pretty."
"And she was someone you picked up..."
"Someone I met. Can't pick up a married woman. Well, you could but it's not the same, you know, threat of the husband..."
"All right. This Cheryl person--"
"Lucas. Cheryl Lucas."
"--you met, why? What possessed you, Jeff?" Leah was perhaps the only person alive who could get away with the diminutive. The pans clanging, however, got to her, so she picked up her little adoptive niece and sat her on her lap, rocking Alicia back and forth on her knee.
"I...I..." Geiger stood up, walked over to the sink below the kitchen window overlooking Lake Michigan. Jagged edges of ice flashed in the noonday sun. "You know how long I've lived with rage, Leah. Became a friend, sometimes the only friend I had. It was always there for me, after Joey, after Laurie, this rage I have, it sustained me, kept me going, kept me focused in the OR, gave me energy to live." He turned towards her and leaned against the sink, the sun at his back silhouetting him. He stared at the intricate whorls on the tiled floor.
"But you know, Leah, all this rage, that was part of me, I thought it was all of me." He looked into the mirror image of his sister's eyes. "Cheryl...her life was just as messed up as mine. Different circumstances of course. She had so much rage too. But she fought it and went beyond it. Beyond it. And the peace she had because of it...I never thought there was life beyond rage, Leah. Only in the rage. I've lived in rage. Now there's a whole other world beyond it. That's where I have to go. I have to live through this, to get to the other side--"
Leah nodded. Perhaps there was hope for her little brother after all.
"But I don't know how. God help me, I don't know how." Geiger's eyes were bleak, hidden in his silhouette.
Geiger and Alicia had stayed at Leah's for a month now, and it was just past the New Year. Aside from that initial conversation, Leah and Geiger stayed away from any topics of the heart. The closest they had gotten to broaching the subject was at Hanukkah, when Leah brought out the menorah despite her brother's professed atheism. Well, not quite atheism--rage was a funny thing, and God happened to be one of Geiger's targets for his wrath. Yet he still believed in God, though not the merciful or forgiving kind. So during Leah's recitation of the prayers for the Festival of Lights, Geiger bit his lip and remained silent. He refused to antagonize his sister, but neither would he yet acknowledge the miracle of the lamps. Leah ended up lighting the candles. Geiger observed, with Alicia in his arms, and tried to keep his mind blank.
They otherwise whiled away the days. Geiger seemed relaxed; he had even forgone shaving, and the resulting beard made him look years younger. But type A personalities craved intellectual challenge, and child care only went so far...Geiger's dedication to Alicia was inspiring, but neither would he make any overtures towards returning to work. It was strange to observe her little go-getter brother putter around Leah's house, though it was nice to have the eaves troughs drained and the dining room painted, and not to have to shovel the four-foot snowdrifts from the driveway herself when she got home from her job managing the local bookstore in St. Ignace. And Alicia was truly a joy to have around. But Leah knew her brother had gone into hiding, and she was unable to draw him out of the shell he'd set up. His legendary stubbornness prevented any attempts.
The phone rang, one particularly bitter and snow-swept day. Geiger refused to answer any telephone calls; Leah hated fielding them. Especially when she suffered colds, like today, when the all the weather did was aggravate them. But the call-display showed a Chicago number so it had to be important.
"Ms. Leah Geiger?"
"This is she."
"This is Dr. Philip Watters, chief of staff at Chicago Hope Hospital. By any chance would Dr. Jeffrey Geiger be there?"
Reckoning time. "Yes, just a moment." Covering the mouthpiece she yelled "Jeffrey! Telephone!" The last word ended in hoarseness.
Geiger stormed out from the adjacent kitchen, where he had been cooking breakfast. Blueberry pancakes. "I told you, no phone calls."
"It's Dr. Watters, from Chicago Hope. Jeffrey, it's probably important."
He tore the receiver from her hand. "Philip. What's up?"
He listened. Then, "There's no one else? What about Shapiro?"
More silence. Then, "I don't know, Philip. Is it an emergency?...all right then. We'll need a helicopter sent up to St. Ignace, yeah, I'll arrange with the hospital there. Austin's not gonna like this...I'm doing you a favor, Philip. Be glad you found me...yeah, yeah, as soon as possible. Right. Right, then." He hung up. "Son of a bitch!"
"What's the phone number of the local hospital, Leah? Need to arrange a clearance for emergency helicopter pickup. Have to fly back to Chicago. Heart transplant, Austin's 'indisposed' and Shapiro's unavailable. Not that I'd trust him to do it anyway. Hah, love to know what's 'indisposing' Kate Austin. Better be worth it."
Leah gave him the number, and Geiger called and made the arrangements. "You'll need a ride in, Jeffrey. We're half an hour out, we'd better start now if you're to meet the chopper when they arrive..." Leah was pulling on her coat when she stopped. Geiger had made no move from the telephone.
"Jeffrey, you have to be on your way. I'll drive you," she repeated. "Jeff!"
He reluctantly moved away, pulled his own black coat from the coat tree. "You'll care for Alicia while I'm gone?" His voice was strange. Drained. He was still having those nightmares...and more than once in the past month Leah found him sleeping at the foot of Alicia's crib. But she had never asked why. Just another demon expressing itself.
"Yes, of course! We'll have to bring her, I'll get her jacket." She rapidly dressed the girl, ran a quick check of the house, turned off the stove burner. Oh well, pancakes could wait. She flew out of the house, cold forgotten, to start the sport utility...roads were slippery, thank goodness for four-wheel drive. The Porsche would wipe out on the first corner it encountered. Geiger followed, somewhat reluctantly, with Alicia. Damn. Leah would have to force the issue. She wasn't sure if Geiger could handle it otherwise. She had half an hour to do it...and hoped she wouldn't be pillaged in the process. Her brother's temper was that legendary.
"All right, time's up, Jeffrey." They were on the road now. Leah couldn't face him, having to keep her eyes peeled for splashes of ice. "You've had essentially two and a half months of self-pillory in whatever hell you've created. It's time to stop and come back to life."
"What the hell do you mean by that?" He stared out the passenger window, not seeing the bare trees pass by.
"Whatever happened that made you leave Chicago Hope. Dammit Jeff, you're a surgeon, you live, you breathe medicine. One day you're ranked top cardiothoracic surgeon in the country, if not the world, the next you're taking off to take care of Alicia and nothing, nothing about your patients, your practice--"
"Alicia was orphaned. Alan Birch wanted me to care for her. It's that simple." The undercurrent of intensity could not be missed.
"--bothers you at all! You drive to Calgary of all places, hook up with some mysterious savant, God knows what else happened--"
"Whatever happened between me and Cheryl Lucas is of no consequence to you. Nothing did happen, but that's beside the point."
"--then you show up on my doorstep after four years of nothing, not even a phone call, with no rational explanation, and literally move in with me, moping around or playing with Alicia and not even a concern about your life or career!"
"Why can't I take a leave of absence? Why not? Everyone else can. But not Dr. Jeffrey Geiger, no sir, God forbid he should even consider it lest the hospital come crashing down to its foundations." Geiger was defensive. "Ever consider that even I need a break?"
"It's not that, Jeffrey. It's the way you did it that concerns me. When you were still hiding in Chicago I got a call from Aaron Shutt, extremely worried about you when he hadn't heard from you in so long, wondering where you were...he told me you lost Alan Birch. And you were upset by that. So you left." Leah's voice, hoarse, dropped.
Alicia prattled happily in the back seat, blissfully unaware of the tension between her new adoptive father and aunt.
"And so you believed him." His voice lowered as well.
"He's your best friend. He loves you. You haven't even been talking to Aaron, Jeff, and that's not like you. No matter how troubled you've been you've always had time for Aaron. Do you know how worried I've been since that phone call? Now I asked you once, and I'm asking you again. What is your problem?"
"There's no problem."
"Bullshit! Honestly, talking to you at times is like pulling teeth! Do I have to drag it out of you?"
"Leah, don't start." Geiger was truculent. But Leah continued.
"Let me guess. You couldn't abide the thought of Alan Birch dying on your table. The number one ranked cardiothoracic surgeon is not supposed to lose anyone-"
"I've already hashed this with Aaron, Leah, I don't want--"
"Not supposed to fail, and you did. You did and that's what's been eating at you ever since you left. Now you avoid going back--"
"I'm not avoiding--"
"Well you're not exactly rushing post-haste either. Jeffrey, you lost a patient."
"I've lost patients before."
"But not a friend. Not under your scalpel. You think you're a failure because of that. But that's not quite the truth. Aaron told me. Alan Birch died. Yes. But he would've died anyway, with or without the surgery. You're not acknowledging that little fact."
"Since when did you earn a medical degree?" Geiger's bitterness was unmistakable.
"Jeffrey, Alan Birch had just been through a major surgery. Major surgery. What was it, seven gunshot wounds? It's a miracle he survived as long as he did!" Leah softened. Geiger blinked back tears. "There was no way he could've survived the second round. You knew it, Austin knew it. But he threw a clot, and you were senior surgeon, so you called it and took him back in. And he died. Yet you conveniently forget that little fact so you can torture yourself and pretend that you're a martyr. You can't save a person? Well, you're finished! May as well retire or retreat or wither away, whatever it is and to hell--"
They hit a patch of ice and the truck slid precipitously towards the guardrail and Lake Michigan. Leah wrestled the steering wheel for control. Geiger whirled around and gripped the baby seat in the back in what would have been a futile protective gesture had they ended in the lake...but the treads eventually caught the road surface again. Leah, used to driving on the poor cottage-country roads in winter, still trembled. But her resolve in forcing her brother to confront this demon had not shaken.
"Why do you do this to yourself? What is it with you and guilt complexes? With Joey, with Laurie, and now with Alan! It was not your fault. NOT YOUR FAULT. Why do you insist otherwise?"
Geiger still faced Alicia, obstensibly to check her well-being. He caressed the baby's cheek. "You don't know that. I hesitated. Hesitated. For a few seconds. I froze, Leah, those few seconds-"
"Wouldn't have mattered one way or the other. Would they?"
Geiger refused to answer.
Leah continued evenly. "Guilt only goes so far, Jeff. You feel guilty, so you're obligated to Alicia. You couldn't save her father, and so you think you're atoning for that by concentrating on her. That you're caring for her, yes. But would Alan have wanted this, Jeffrey? For you to waste your life away, to deprive your patients in desperate need of your skill and care, in the name of Alicia?"
Geiger formed the word soundlessly, reluctantly. "No."
Leah sighed with relief when the lights of St. Ignace showed up in the distance, glowing through the snowfall. "Almost there. Please, Jeffrey. Consider this. It's a new beginning. Try this surgery on for size. If it's a heart transplant, you're on familiar ground. So see how it's like. Afterwards, I don't care if you decide to take even more time off, hell, I'd love for you to re-paint my whole house at this rate!" She chuckled ruefully. "But remember. Not your fault. Not your fault. No one can say that you did not do your best, no one will hold it against you, and no one blames you. Except yourself, but...just remember, not your fault, OK?"
They reached the city limits. Leah turned the utility in the direction of the hospital. The rest of the trip was spent in silence. She occasionally glanced over to Geiger, straight in profile now, bearded and...relaxed? Yes. More relaxed. His lips moved soundlessly, but she couldn't make out the words.
They reached the hospital, and the waiting helicopter. Leah pulled up to the emergency entrance. Geiger leaned back and kissed Alicia soundly on her forehead. "I'll be back tonight, honey, I promise." To Leah he nodded. "Take care of her. Please." Their eyes met and held.
"Of course, Jeff. Good luck."
Geiger took her hand briefly. "I'll be back later tonight." The determination was back. "See ya." Then he jumped out of the utility, and ran into the hospital and the waiting chopper to carry him back to Chicago.